The Appropriate Lubricant Oil Is a Must to Pass Today's Audits

Trace amounts of lubricant are unavoidable in many processes, and that's driving a steady migration to food-grade greases and oils.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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In the not too distant past, food-grade lubricants were viewed at best as a curiosity and at worst a tribological nightmare for the equipment that drives food and beverage production.

Six years ago, when NSF International was preparing a more rigorous registration and certification program for food-grade lubricants, the Ann Arbor, Mich., organization surveyed food companies to determine how many had already migrated to food-grade lubes. Surprisingly, three out of five did not stock any H-1 lubricants.

Today, suppliers estimate seven out of 10 food companies have moved to food grade. Performance issues have been put to rest, although cost considerations explain lingering resistance. Universal use is likely in the coming years, as independent food-safety auditors are on the lookout for infractions to 21 CFR 178.3570 and other regulations governing oils and lubricants that may have incidental contact with food.

Application of  the appropriate oil is a must to pass today's audits, according to Jessica Evans, business manager-nonfood compounds group at NSF, which also conducts third-party audits for BRC, SQF and other certification programs approved by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI).

Mandatory hazards analysis and critical control points (HACCP) programs for FDA regulated processors under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) also will push noncompliant plants to the H-1 standard, predicts Jim Gerard, vice president at Newark, N.J.-based Lubriplate Lubricants Co.

FSMA requires a preventive approach to potential hazards. By stocking H-1 lubes across the board, facilities are able to preempt the chemical hazard posed by conventional lubricants, Gerard points out, while also simplifying inventory and storage issues. "Converting 100 percent to H-1 takes the guesswork out of which lubricant to use in a specific application," he says.

The old rule-of-thumb that H-1 was only for machinery above the conveyor line while H-2 lithium complex greases were adequate below it is "hogwash," thunders Ike Trexler, market manager for Summit Industrial Products, Tyler, Texas. "You can't do that; it's a myth."

Summit was acquired in 1996 by Kluber Lubricants, which means it competes with the U.S. division of its parent company. The companies are able to coexist because of the extensive customization required for application-specific greases and oils, explains Toby Porter, food market manager for Londonderry, N.H.-based Kluber. Suppliers also try to distinguish themselves by emphasizing support services. "Our business is built around stopping wear, which is why we emphasize oil-analysis services," Porter says. "I believe it's a differentiator for us.

Most lubricant suppliers offer both mineral- or white oil-based lubricants and synthetic bases. Manufacturers contending with sticker shock when upgrading to food-grade greases have been slow to embrace even pricier synthetics, but the trend is toward syns, suppliers believe. "There are some applications where there is so much contamination that the life of the oil is very short and a synthetic isn't appropriate," allows Ben Briseno, product manager for Citgo's Clarion White Oils division in Houston, but the operational advantages will eventually push greater adoption of synthetics. Reduced friction on wear parts, lower operating temperatures, less maintenance time and reduced disposal costs make a compelling total cost of ownership argument.

Now with secret sauce

Whether synthetic- or hydrocarbon-based, food-grade lubricants rely on various additives to achieve optimal performance in a given application. Those additives are blended into base stocks to provide antiwear characteristics, resist water and alkaline treatments, and as an antioxidant. Examples of the latter are Good-rite 3131 and Good-rite 3128, thermo-oxidative stabilizers from Emerald Polymer Additives. Based on octyl butylated diphenylamine (DPA) chemistry, the antioxidants recently received NSF's HX-1 certification for incidental food contact.

Good-rite 3131 is the first new product in decades from Emerald, a successor to BFGoodrich, according to John Zuppo, general manager-lubricants & plastic antioxidant product lines at the Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, firm. The 3128 product has been available for decades, says Zuppo, but 3131 has lower residual amounts of DPA.

Concentration ratios are covered under 21 CFR 182 and mean everything with food-grade lubricants. These are the GRAS elements such as zinc oxide, an anti-wear additive, and tocopherols, which function as antioxidants. Under USDA's old registration program for food-grade lubricants, a supplier could bump the concentration three-fold or more over time, resulting in a blend that posed a health risk to humans. The preapproval loophole persisted after NSF took over the registration program until 2007, when the agency upgraded the system to require sample submissions and ongoing reviews to detect any formulation changes.

Additives like Emerald's must receive HX-1 certification if they are to be blended into a food-grade lubricant. Zuppo says the products can be used in both synthetic and hydrocarbon greases and oils, and many end-users will opt for 3128 and its higher residual BPA content. But for those who want the cleanest label possible, 3131 will be the additive of choice.

Emerald also is exploring certification for an antimicrobial additive, he says.

Failure to secure NSF registration for additives under HX-1 disqualifies a lubricant for food-grade status, yet there are examples of suppliers who "have taken poetic license" with the requirement, according to Lubriplate's Gerard. "It's a buyer beware situation." Food companies concerned with the efficacy of their lubricants should demand a letter of guaranty, certifying that a supplier's food-grade lubes were, in fact, blended with FDA-approved additives in the proper concentrations, he advises.

Lubricant certification is following the same evolution that is occurring in food safety certification. Just as suppliers of medical devices and pharmaceuticals must validate the integrity of their suppliers, oil suppliers and their food processing customers are being challenged to work only with companies with certified processes and products. For example, Emerald is certifying its manufacturing facilities to Level 2 of SQF, the same standards organization that certifies food plants under the GFSI umbrella. As the certification infrastructure becomes more robust, the expectation is that quality assurance will increase.

"Raw materials are not all the same among those in a category that has been approved by the FDA," writes Greg Bruce, marketing communications manager at LPS Laboratories, Tucker, Ga. "Factors like quality and grades of raw materials are involved." The efficacy of food-grade lubricants is dependent in part on the supplier's reputation and commitment to high quality additives and bases.

This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Food Processing Magazine.

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